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315. Kin-State Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: the Case of Hungary

Zsuzsa Csergo is Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. She spoke at an EES noon discussion on January 12, 2005. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 315.

On December 5, 2004, a public referendum was held in Hungary about the following question:

Do you want the National Assembly to legislate a law on offering—upon individual request—Hungarian citizenship, by preferential naturalization, to non-Hungarian citizens, living outside Hungary, declaring themselves to be of Hungarian nationality, proving their Hungarian nationality either by a "Hungarian Certificate" under Art. 19 of the Act 62/2001 or in another way, defined in the law requested for legislation?

In more simple terms, Hungarian citizens were called to answer "Yes" or "No" to the question of whether they wanted their parliament to adopt legislation to make non-resident ethnic Hungarians eligible for Hungarian—and by extension European Union—citizenship. Although a weak majority (51.5 percent) voted "Yes," the referendum failed, because an insufficient number of people (fewer than 20 percent of Hungary's approximately 8 million eligible voters) showed up to vote. Low turnout, however, was not a reflection of low public interest in the question. To the contrary, the "dual citizenship" referendum became a highly significant event in a broader debate over Hungary's policy—as a kin-state—in relation to its so-called "external minorities" in neighboring countries.

The pages that follow, I first place the Hungarian debate into a comparative framework of emerging kin state politics in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), then comment on the particularities of the Hungarian case. The lessons that emerge from this discussion highlight two important aspects of CEE politics today. First, rather than weakening nation-building aspirations, the pursuit of EU membership in many instances reinforces such aspirations. Second, rather than uniting "the nation," some ambitious propositions for nation-building create or reinforce divisions within the population they proposed to unite.

Nation-building at the time of supra-national integration: the case of kin states
Many observers have asked why a public referendum was necessary about large-scale dual citizenship for Hungary's external minorities in 2004. After all, Hungary joined the EU that year, together with two of neighboring states containing Hungarian minorities—Slovakia and Slovenia. Romania, another neighboring state where the largest Hungarian minority population lives, is expected to become a member in 2007. If EU enlargement continues as anticipated, the overwhelming majority of ethnic Hungarian minorities in the region will become citizens of the same European post-national institutional framework in less than a decade. What purpose would dual citizenship serve in such a context?

The Hungarian debate speaks to the continuing importance of kin-state activism in CEE despite EU integration. Kin-states are states that pursue policies aimed at members of co-ethnic groups living abroad. The current ethno-political map of Europe provides varying conditions for the emergence of kin-state policies, and the political importance of such policies also varies across the continent. A state such as the Czech Republic, for instance (which has no significant external minorities or internal national minorities left), has neither incentives to act as a kin-state itself nor reasons to fear involvement by another kin-state in its domestic affairs. Other instances represent more complicated transborder relationships. In Western Europe, Austria (in relation to South Tyrol) and Ireland (in relation to Northern Ireland) provide the best known examples of kin-state politics. In Central and Eastern Europe, a series of more recent dramatic shifts in political boundaries have engendered a "richer" terrain for the emergence of kin-state activism. Numerous ethnic groups in the region have kin-states nearby. Moreover, a significant number of states in the region are struggling to balance the dual roles of home state (for their internal minorities) and kin state (for minorities abroad)—roles that can pull state policy in conflicting directions. At various times since 1990, some governments, such as those in Romania and Slovakia, have pursued kin-state policies abroad while contesting similar policies by other states toward their minorities. Other states, such as Slovenia and Croatia, have demonstrated a higher degree of consistency, coupling the pursuit of kin-state policies abroad with acceptance of policies by other kin-states toward minorities within their territories.

The minorities that participate in these relationships are themselves of different kinds. Some act as ethnic groups or individuals with interests in reproducing institutions that promote their cultural heritage. Others act as national minorities, with aspirations for self-governing institutions in historically claimed "homelands." Therefore, both the ethno-political conditions for kin-state activism and the strategies that kin-states have developed vary from case to case. In all cases, however, the pursuit of cultural reproduction leads to the pursuit of at least a thin form of cultural unity among ethnic groups across political boundaries.

It is useful to think of kin-state activism in terms of three main goals: strengthening of co-ethnic communities abroad (culturally, socio-economically, and institutionally); promoting cross-border interaction (social, economic, cultural); and enabling co-ethnics to move to the kin state (through preferential conditions for naturalization). The actual policies designed to accomplish these goals can vary significantly over time, both across and within states. Some policies rely primarily on indirect modes of influence, through foreign policy and diplomacy. Examples are bilateral treaties with minority protection clauses (such as the so-called Friendship Treaties that Hungary signed with Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia) and kin-state efforts to influence international law, especially European law, in the direction of minority protection. Other policies represent more direct modes of kin-state engagement with "external minorities." Two kinds of direct engagement have emerged as particularly important for nation-building across borders: 1) benefit law that provides various educational, cultural and economic benefits; and 2) preferential naturalization procedures for ethnic kin abroad.

Welfare benefits as kin-state policy
A series of benefit laws for co-ethnics abroad emerged in the second half of the first post-communist decade, at the same time that many CEE governments were negotiating EU accession. In June 1996, the Slovene parliament adopted a law that defined Slovenes in Slovenia together with historic Slovene communities outside the state as belonging to "a common Slovene cultural zone," and provided state subsidies to foster interactions within this zone. The following year, the Slovak parliament adopted a benefit law for "Slovaks living abroad," offering educational, employment and transportation benefits, as well as residency in Slovakia without the usual application process, based on an ethnic Slovak identification card. In 1998, a benefit law adopted in Romania established a budget to be used at the discretion of the Prime Minister, primarily to grant free higher education in Romania for ethnic Romanians living abroad. This law also created a Ministerial Council for the Support of Romanian Communities around the World.

The Hungarian parliament adopted a benefit law in 2001 (and amended it in 2003), providing transportation, education, cultural and health benefits and short-term employment eligibility in Hungary, on the basis of an ethnic Hungarian identification card. This law also offered educational benefits on the territory of these minorities' home states (tuition for Hungarian children who study in Hungarian schools in their home country). It was primarily on this basis that the governments of Romania and Slovakia brought the charge of "extra-territoriality" and discrimination against the Hungarian Status law. (Other neighboring governments were less critical.) In response to these charges, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, created by the Council of Europe and commonly known as the Venice Commission, conducted the first serious comparative evaluation of kin-state legislation by a European institution in October 2001. This comparative report (assessing the 1979 Austrian law on South Tyrolians, the 1997 Slovak law on Slovaks abroad, the 1998 Romanian law on Romanians around the world, the 1999 Russian law on co-nationals abroad, the 2000 Bulgarian law on Bulgarians abroad, the 2001 Italian law on Italian minorities in Slovenia and Croatia, and the 2001 Hungarian Status law) also formulated recommendations that can be viewed as elements of an emerging European regime on kin-state policies. On the one hand, these recommendations stressed the primacy of state sovereignty, basic human rights, and non-discrimination, and upheld the notions that home states (i.e., the states where the minorities reside) are responsible for minority protection and that the international community should monitor whether states fulfill that duty. On the other hand, the recommendations acknowledged states' rights to offer benefits to external kin, so long as they reinforce, rather than strain, good neighborly relations. Accordingly, benefits should apply only on the kin-state's own territory, respect the principle of non-discrimination, and are unilaterally adopted only if all bilateral means have been exhausted without success. The same warnings against extra-territoriality and discrimination were also later reaffirmed in the evaluation of the Hungarian benefit law by a special rapporteur of the European Parliament.

Citizenship law as kin-state policy
Although less widely employed than benefit law, citizenship law as a tool for nation-building across state borders is also part of the repertoire of kin-state politics. It is important to note that preferential naturalization on ethnic grounds is not unique to post-communist countries. Past examples include the West German state, which provided preferential naturalization on the basis of ethnic belonging to Germans requesting "repatriation" from then-communist countries. Israel granted citizenship on similar grounds to Jews from Ethiopia and the Soviet bloc. Many states also grant citizenship to non-residents, including some EU member states, such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Recognizing the diversity of approaches to citizenship policy within the EU, the European Convention on Nationality (adopted in 1997) stated that "[e]ach state shall determine under its own law who are its nationals" and that "each state is free to decide which consequences it attaches in its internal law to the fact that a national acquires or possesses another nationality."

It is equally important to note, however, that multiple citizenship is currently viewed in EU states primarily as a benefit to individuals rather than as a tool for nation-building across state borders. In fact, the large-scale granting of multiple citizenship to non-resident members of external minorities holds the potential to disrupt current notions of political community. The examples of Croatia and Romania are suggestive. Newly independent Croatia with a population of approximately four and a half million adopted a citizenship law in 1993 that granted citizenship rights to ethnic Croatians abroad that number approximately 4 million people. Ethnic Croats outside Croatia today vote in general elections and hold reserved seats in the Croatian parliament. Romania changed its citizenship law in 2003 to grant citizenship, regardless of residence or intention to "repatriate," to those who held Romanian citizenship before December 22, 1989 or their descendants who lost their citizenship involuntarily. Thousands of ethnic Romanians in Moldova voted in the highly-contested 2004 Romanian elections. Although "dual" voting rights may render more resources to minorities, this practice may also contribute to a sense of lost political power by those citizens who live in the country in which elections take place and have no equivalent "cross-voting" possibilities. This situation increases the potential for division among societies that kin-state policies propose to bridge. It is in this regard that the debate over the "dual citizenship" initiative in Hungary offers especially valuable lessons.

Lessons from the Hungarian case
As a formerly dominant group, Hungarians highten interest and anxiety in the region whenever they engage in kin-state activism. Past dominance followed by relatively recent reversals of fortune have contributed to fears in the neighborhood that Hungarians may have a hidden agenda to reincorporate territories Hungary had lost through the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the drafting of the 2001 Status Law attracted more international interest than all previously adopted benefit laws in the region combined. It is equally noteworthy, however, that Hungary's kin-state politics has become deeply controversial among Hungarians themselves.

No major political party in Hungary has expressed irredentist ambitions since 1990. Instead, consecutive postcommunist Hungarian governments opted for a trans-sovereign form of nation-building, with the expressed goal of helping Hungarians throughout the Carpathian basin strengthen their Hungarian culture and improve their socio-economic conditions "in their homeland," that is, in the states in which they live. This strategy has been based on an apparent broad consensus among Hungarian political parties that the Hungarian government must care for co-ethnic communities abroad. More than 90 percent of Hungarian deputies voted in favor of the Status Law in 2001.

The question became how exactly a country of about 10 million people should care for "external minorities" that comprise more than 2.5 million people—most of whom live in states that are economically weaker than Hungary, which itself has plenty of socio-economic issues to resolve. This question has yet to find an answer acceptable to the majority of Hungarians. The fact that the main parties of the two opposing political camps—the right-of-center FIDESZ on the one hand and the Socialist-Liberal coalition on the other—consistently employ the issue of Hungarians abroad as an opportunity to define themselves in contrast to the other works against reaching a commonly acceptable strategy. If the benefit law and its later amendment triggered controversy among Hungarians, the "dual citizenship" referendum of 2004 became viciously divisive, and the division mirrored an ideological fissure that exists in Hungarian politics today. This process also demonstrated how some of the seemingly ambitious policies that propose to build national unity can deepen divisions in the "nation" they purport to unite.

Citizenship as a solution to Hungary's "external minorities" dilemma had been raised earlier, before the drafting of the 2001 "Status Law," but no one took the proposition seriously in or outside of Hungary. In 2001, the FIDESZ-Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF) government, which at the time placed great emphasis on kin-state policy, opted against this option on the grounds that dual citizenship might further weaken Hungarian communities abroad by making it easier for individuals to repatriate to Hungary. Dual citizenship became a matter of political debate only after a Budapest-centered NGO, the World Federation of Hungarians, between August 2003 and July 2004 managed to gather the sufficient number of signatures to force a public referendum on the question. From that time, the issue of kin-state strategy became a major political football in Hungary as part of an intense domestic political battle in preparation for the 2006 parliamentary elections. The Hungarian government (the Hungarian Socialist Party in alliance with the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats led the "No" campaign by publishing frightening figures about the potential costs of dual citizenship. As an alternative, the government offered a "Homeland Program Package" to provide for a Hungarian passport without citizenship and a "Homeland fund" to help neighboring Hungarians thrive in their settlements. As a response, the opposing side, FIDESZ, jumped off the fence to lead a "Yes" campaign, calling on Hungarian citizens to send the message to Hungarians abroad that they are an integral part of the Hungarian nation. According to critics, however, the inclusive policy was hardly selfless, since FIDESZ strategists calculated that Hungarians living in the neighboring countries would use their voting rights to help replace the current Socialist-Liberal coalition with a FIDESZ-led government in the next elections.

The campaign in Hungary also forced the political parties of Hungarian minorities abroad to take a stand. After all, the debate was about their potential dual citizenship. The way these positions emerged demonstrated a diversity of conditions and interests among Hungary's external minorities. The weakest Hungarian communities are those in Vojvodina and Ukraine, two countries that are not yet lined up for EU accession. Hungarians in Vojvodina number only about 300,000, and ongoing anti-Hungarian harassment and criminal activity (including random beatings and desecration of sites) contribute to heightened fear among them that the EU's increasing efforts to strengthen its external borders would further weaken their communities and culture in that part of Yugoslavia. Moreover, ethnic Croatians in Vojvodina, as well as ethnic Serbs who live in Croatia, hold dual citizenship (Serbian and Croatian), and their Croatian citizenship allows them to travel freely to Hungary—something that ethnic Hungarians are not allowed to do. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hungarian parties in Vojvodina were the most enthusiastic proponents of dual citizenship. Hungarians in Ukraine comprise only about 160,000 people and are the poorest among Hungary's external minorities. No matter how attractive this solution might be to them holding dual citizenship is currently illegal in Ukraine. To change this situation, Hungarian parties would need to negotiate an (unlikely) constitutional amendment in Ukraine. Accordingly, it is equally unsurprising that Hungarian parties there were unable to form a united front in support of dual citizenship.

The two largest and most resourceful Hungarian minority populations live in Romania (which expects to join the EU in 2007) and Slovakia (already an EU member). Although a 2000 survey indicated strong popular support among Hungarians in Romania for dual citizenship, the political leaders of the Hungarian communities in both countries were less than enthusiastic about the idea. They lined up behind the cause of dual citizenship only after the Hungarian government at the time began opposing it and FIDESZ decided to support it. As a result, the failed referendum in December 2004 deepened political divisions across the board, this time also causing bitter disappointment among Hungarians outside Hungary with their co-ethnics in the mother country, effectively "exporting" Hungary's domestic political division.

Thus, kin-state politics highlights both the continuing appeal of ethnically-conceived cultural reproduction in Europe and the paradoxes that such nation-building aspirations hold for unity and diversity. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the political elites in a number of kin-states in the CEE have developed peaceful ways of (either symbolically or more tangibly) including "external kin" in their political strategies. Yet kin-state strategists continue to face a set of difficult challenges. They not only need to accommodate the primary security and stability needs of the EU and the conflicting state- and nation-building interests of neighboring states, but they also need to deal with the realities of markedly different conditions and interests among the members of their desired "virtual nation."


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Zsuzsa Csergo

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The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more